Building a Psychological Immune System: Theoretical Considerations in the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Physical Diseases

From: Modern Psychoanalysis, Vol. XVI, No. 1, 1991 (P 105 – 120)

There is an old fable that goes as such:

Once upon a time, there was a great, large animal. The animal was taken to the gate of a city, where six blind men of the highest scientific curiosity were to inspect the animal in order to tell their countrymen both the nature of the animal and how to best care for it.

The first blind man’s hand fell upon the animal’s tusks. “Ah,” he said, “This creature is a thing of bones; they even protrude through his skin.” Later on, years having passed, this man became an orthopedist.

The second blind man seized the animals’ trunk, and identified its function. “What a nose,” he exclaimed. “Surely this is the most important part of the animal.” Accordingly, he became a rhinologist.

The third man chanced up the animal’s great flapping ear, and came to a similar conclusion. For him, the heart was everything. And so, in time, he became an otologist.

The fourth rested his hands on the huge chest and abdomen of the animal. “The contents of this barrel must be enormous,” he thought, “and the pathological derangements infinite in number and variety.” Nothing would do but for this man to become an internist.

The fifth man caught hold of the animal’s tail. He thought to himself, “What an utterly useless appendage. It might even be a source of trouble. Better to take it off.” This man, of course, became a surgeon.

Finally, the sixth man did not, like the others, depend on his sense of touch. Instead he only listened. He heard the animal approaching – the rattle of the chains and the shouts of the keeps. He heard the animal heave a great sigh as he trudged along.

“Where is the creature going?” he asked. No one answered.

“Where did he come from?” he asked. No one knew. This man fell into a deep reverie. “What was in the animals’ mind?” he wondered. “Why did this very large animal, larger even than his keepers, capable of fighting and surely capable of escaping, submit to the indignities of man’s curiosities and the slavery of chains?”

This man determined to become a psychoanalyst (Menninger, 1973).

As it turns out the animal’s name was Baba. His childhood friends called him Dumbo – they gave him that name because his inability to talk gave him the appearance of being dumb. But this sixth man, now an eminent psychoanalyst, was intrigued by Baba. He was convinced that the animal was suffering, and if he could find some way to communicate with Baba, it would help to alleviate the animal’s pain. So, he took Baba as a patient.

Baba was not such an unusual patient. In fact, he was very much like many of the patients we see in our practices today. They are obviously in psychic distress; they give clear indications of feeling psychically entrapped, or enslaved. We, as psychoanalysts and as students of the min, know the immense creative potential of the psyche. We know that a mind that has been trained to exercise the functions of both freedom and spontaneity, as well as discipline and restraint, can virtually accomplish miracles. But somehow our patients, like Baba, don’t seem to know how, or perhaps don’t want, to tap into this power.

And, too, like Baba, our patients often seem at a loss for words. They shrug their shoulders; they say, “I don’t know,” when we ask questions about their internal lives. They grunt and groan about their lives, their spouses, their work, the state of the economy, and then ask how all this complaining is going to help, and whatever is the value anyway of going through all these agonies.

Life often feels quite meaningless to our patients, and like in Sartre’s play, there appears to be No Exit, other than death itself.

So it turns out that the story of Baba illustrates well for us the state of psychoanalysis – the dilemma that we psychoanalysts are in with or patients and with our desire to be helpful to them.

But the story illustrates yet another important point. This is, of course, the state of all medicine today, too. It has become fragmented and specialized in its observations and care of us, the human animal. The top and the bottom, the front and the back of the human are looked at separately, rather than as an integrated, whole-functioning system. Each specialty and subspecialty remains separate and distinct from the others.

For many years, psychiatry and psychoanalysis were the Cinderella of medicine. Surgery, obstetrics, internal medicine – they all strutted in the fancy parlor, while psychoanalysis sat alone by the fire in the kitchen.

This, too, is because of what I call the Baba effect. Our doctors and scientists forgot that the body houses a psyche, and that the wishes, dreams, desires, fears, hates, envies, longings and loves are as much a part of a patient as his urine and his blood. And, that they are as deserving of analysis and as amenable to treatment measures.

But Cinderella married the prince, and, as a result of the last 50 years of research, it is now firmly fixed in the consciousness of most of us that mind and body are only conceptually distinct. The use of psychological techniques in the treatment of somatic diseases has now gone mainstream. Cancer and heart disease, the supposedly most somatic of somatic diseases 50 years ago, are both seen today, by many traditional medical practitioners, to have strong psychosomatic components, and to be susceptible to the psychological intervention. Widely read physicians Bernard Siegel and Carl Simonton have changed the way many lay people, too, view their physical diseases.

The emphasis on the psyche in the treatment of somatic disorders is certainly great news. It is, of course, what psychoanalysts have been proselytizing for these same 50 years, since Franz Alexander and Flandars Dunbar extended Freud’s work into the application of psychosomatic medicine. But until recently, all we had was clinical material to ballast our claim. The really great news is that we now have experimental, epidemiological and physiological data to document our claims.

Hans Selye was one of the first modern scientists to experimentally document the relationship between the body and the psyche. Actually, in psychoanalytic terminology, Selye was a drive theorist. His concept of stress is usually misunderstood. Most people, when they say their lives are full of stress, or that they’re sick because of stress, talk about stress as though it were something “out-there,” nothing to do with the person himself. Selye’s idea of stress, however, was that it arose because of the individual’s inability to adapt to stimuli. Selye places the responsibility, as did Freud, squarely within the capability of the organism to respond appropriately and healthfully, or otherwise.

But Selye’s elaboration of the concept of stress was not his most brilliant discovery. What he realized, of far greater import, was that all diseases, in the beginning, look alike. It is only very late in the game, when differential deterioration has set in, that symptoms become specific enough to attribute labels to the process.

The reason this finding is so important is that it means by the time a disease process is manifest on the somatic level, it’s already almost too late to do anything about it. For instance, if we look at the two big diseases, the ones that will kill almost all of us, cancer and heart disease, what is most stunning about them is that they are, for so long, silent and unfelt. A cancer process has been manifested in the body usually 10, sometimes 20 years before the actual appearance of a tumor, or any other visible sign of the disease process. It is the same with heart disease. Heart attack victims can be avid runners (like Jim Fixx) or tennis players (like Arthur Ashe) without any hint that a heart disease is brewing.

It is precisely the silent, unfelt nature of these diseases that gives us a caveat. How can we prevent or cure a disease when we don’t even know that the disease is there, or what it is?

We do have an answer. Although we can’t look at the body, because of its deceptive nature, we can look elsewhere. It turns out that we have an extremely reliable indicator. This is the psyche. The psychic organization of any individual serves as a very good indicator of which physical disease he is going to be susceptible to.

We actually have biochemical documentation of this concept. We have a new technology, called Positive Emission Tomography, which is literally a window into the brain. It allows us to take color pictures of electrochemical events generated in the brain by particular thoughts and feelings. For instance, fear only lights p in a certain part of the brain with a certain color. Happy is a different color in a different part of the brain. We can get quite specific about this. We know the chemicals for some of our feelings. Anger is rich in norepinephrine. What we know about norepinephrine is that too much of it damages coronary vessels. So, if an individual is angry a lot, it is likely that he’s going to suffer from heart disease. Of course, the psychological studies of Friedman and Roseman on Type A personality confirm these findings.

The psychological studies on the cancer personality show that it has a surfeit of the feelings of fear, despair and a giving-up on life. These feelings, we know from the PET studies, produce a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol binds to the immune cells, and suppresses them, rendering the immune system less effective. Cancer is, indeed, a disease where there is a pre-existing condition of immune deficiency.

The point is: we can pretty much predict, from looking at the dominant aspects of one’s personality, whether he is going to get cancer or heart disease. Since one third of us will get cancer, and more than that number will suffer from heart disease, most of us can predict the manner of the physical deterioration of our bodies.

Obviously, if emotions are chemicals, then our feelings are going to have to be an important part of our physical health. The question becomes then, how do we use our feelings to protect us from physical disease? In the last 10 years, most of the experts in this area have given one resounding answer. Hope, optimism, love – all the positive feelings – we have been told have a beneficial effect on the body and are prophylactic against disease, and in some cases, possibly even curative.

Psychoanalytic studies first gave hint to the powerful healing potential of love. British psychoanalysts Rene Spitz and John Bowlby first documented this in the postwar nurseries of England. Without affection, babies wither and die. More recently, we know from the studies on cancer patients of Lawrence Leshan and Carl Simonton that hope and optimism are curative. Norman Cousins convinced us, similarly, about the healing power of laughter.

Experimental research verified these clinical findings. Feelings of love have been shown to increase antibody IgA, important in immunity. People in love have less infections and more white blood cell activity. Even watching a film on Mother Theresa will have a beneficial effect on the body. The result of all this research is that we, as a culture, have fallen in love with love.

While these ideas may seem commonplace to us today, we tend to forget how recent is the invention of the feelings of love and happiness and optimism as a way of life. Until the late 18th century, the family existed primarily as an economic unit. Marriages were arranged for the sake of preserving property. Children were used as cheap sources of labor, or as a hedge against poverty in old age.

Survival was all, and there was little time or inclination for love or personal happiness. Where it existed, it was one voice that rose above others.

The nineteenth century, and Freud, changed all that. Our notion about love changed when our ideas about children changed. Freud helped us to view children as having a needs of their own rather than serving the needs of the family.

We know children live longer and more productive lives when they are loved. Love in childhood bestows lifelong advantage that may well be the most important factor in health. It gives the individual a sense of power, of control, of being able to effect change.

There is ample evidence showing that a surfeit of the feeling of helplessness is associated with apathy, depression and death. To live day-in and day-out with the idea that one’s suffering is quite beyond one’s control leads one to conclude that individual effort is for naught.

To grow up with the idea that there is a possibility that one’s feelings count tells us that, at least to a certain extent, we are masters of our destinies. And this idea of potential control leaves us better equipped to fight off disease and the psychological impact of other disasters.

In spite of the powerful evidence on the therapeutic benefits of positive feelings, we have one lone voice in the wilderness who says love is great, but don’t forget hate. Hate, anger, aggression, says Hyman Spotnitz, are just as important to health and cure as love.

Spotnitz’s idea of the therapeutic value of hate has much confirming evidence. Earlier in our evolution, we were greatly dependent on those feelings, and on their chemical representations, for our survival. Life was filled, from dawn to dusk, with life-threatening situations. We had to fight lions and tigers, to search for food which might have been scarce, and to rebuild home that were destroyed with a fair degree of regularity by rainstorms, hurricanes and other environmental traumas. Our physiological responses, what we call “stress” hormones, were crucial: norepinephrine was important for the fight; cortisol helped calm us down.

The evolutionary development of love could not have happened without hate. Human love, as we know it today, began because of the prolonged dependent state of the human infant. For infants to survive, they had to rely on the altruism of otherwise aggressive adults. As well, in order to have friends, we had to first have enemies. It is a trick that politicians know and use. If you want to mobilize solidarity in a nation, arrange to have an enemy who threatens your survival.

The animal kingdom, too, reveals that hate and aggression are inevitable. Enemies are imagined if they are not really present. Once invented, all the fear that is concomitant with an enemy is aroused. Herring gulls go through an elaborate procedure of “hate” before “love” is possible. They conjure up the image of an imaginary enemy and carry out their programmed ritual of aggression towards this mirage, and only then go off to mate.  Gibbons monkeys, who live in family groups, similarly invent games to play with each other. They fight phony wards, rush about, taunting and teasing, all in the interest of heightening tension towards the outside world and creating intimacy in the domestic arena (Tweedie, 1979).

One of the contributions of Spotnitz was in bringing to light the existence of the negative feelings in the transference relationship. He understood that the human animal, like its predecessors, needs to experience hate before he can feel love.

The fact is, and it’s what Spotnitz really means, all feelings cure, not just the positive ones, and not just the negative ones. It’s just that hate and anger are the ones we most of all don’t like to feel – the hardest ones to allow into our consciousness and the hardest ones to find constructive channels for.

All love is like getting stuck in a vat of molasses. It may taste great for a while, but finally one notices that it’s kind of sticky and gooey and dense, and doesn’t leave much room for movement. We may wither and die for lack of love, like Spitz’s babies, but we will be fatally malnourished by a love that has no balance.

The question then becomes: How is it that we can use our feelings – all of them – to create beneficial effect in our bodies?

The best way to look at how it is that our emotions can protect us from physical disease is to look, first at the model of the body, and its protective mechanism. The protection of the body is derived from its immune system. The biological immune system wards off dangerous pathogens, arising either externally (as in the case of germs and microorganisms) or internally (as in the case of cancer cells, or the arterial plaque that causes heart disease). When our immune system does not succumb to these foreign invaders, we don’t succumb to disease.

Just as the body has a physical immune system, the psyche has a psychological immune system, which operates in a parallel manner to the physical one. Freud did the early research on this. He called the psychological immune system “defense”, and in moving the emphasis from trauma, as the causative agent in mental disorder, to the internal drives, he became the first “immunologist of the mind.” Selye’s work on stress was merely an extension of Freud’s ideas of drives and defenses, newly applying his concept of the psyche to the body.

The biological immune system has three processes available to it with which to protect the organism. Organisms in a state of health normally have these three responses which will return them to health: regeneration, isolation and inflammation.

If we use cancer as a paradigm (it can be done with heart disease as the paradigm, as well’ see Deceits of the Mind (and their effects of the body), Goldberg, 1991), we can see how these three responses are used as attempts by the afflicted organism to return to the homeostasis of health.

As we descend down the phylogenetic scale, we see that primitive organisms mostly resort to the defense of regeneration. Lizards grow new tails; salamanders regenerate new legs; starfish grow new appendages. We humans retain some vestige of this capacity. Our skin, for instance, has great regenerative capacity. When there is a wound in the skin, the puncture heals quickly. When corneal cells are damaged, within a day, old damaged cells will have been sloughed off and new cells grown. What is interesting about all this is that, in the animal kingdom, we observe and inverse relation between cancer and regeneration. Organisms that regenerate don’t get cancer. We can’t even experimentally induce cancer in these animals. When known human carcinogens are injected into the limb of a lizard, it doesn’t get cancer; instead it grows another limb. The same is true about the eye; carcinogenic implantation into the lens results in regeneration, not cancer. Regeneration, or new growth, is the primitive organism’s cellular response to loss, injury, or irritation. The identical stimulus induces either regeneration or malignancy, depending on the organism’s state of evolution (Rosch, 1981).

When we look at the relation between regeneration and cancer in the human body, we may begin to form an astonishing hypothesis; perhaps the human cancer chromosome (or, oncogene) is actually a modern day replica of the regenerative capacity of primitive organisms. Only vital to the organism’s survival, this adaptive response, like many of man’s present adaptive responses with linkages in his remote past, has become harmful or dangerous. (Such erroneous linking of past and present is, too, the primary component of the diseases neurosis and psychosis.)

Evidence of such and hypothesis is seen in the close relation, within the human organism, between regeneration and malignancy potential. The nervous system, which is highly differentiated, with low regenerative capacity, only rarely gives rise to cancer. On the other hand, the digestive and reproductive organs, where regenerative capacity is strong, account for 75% of all cancers.

The exception to the rule of the direct relationship between regenerative capacity and cancer growth in the human body is such a stunning exception that it serves to confirm a relation, though increasing the complexity of the connection. This exception is the spleen. The spleen is the only organ in the human boy which apparently has the ability to entirely reproduce itself. Remnant s of functioning splenic tissue have been found, following surgical removal of the spleen, thus suggesting that successful regeneration of this organ can occur spontaneously in humans. What makes this fact so interesting is that the spleen, as well, has the distinction of being the only organ in the human body that is not susceptible to primary cancer (Rosch, 1981). The spleen, then, is the only organ in the human body which retains the primitive inverse relation between cancer and regeneration. Why should the spleen be the sole exception to the rule? It appears as though the spleen, unlike other organs in the human body, retains much more of its vestigial tie to primitive organism. Not only can the spleen reproduce itself, but it can, as well, reproduce itself, in some rare cases, in the hundreds. Anatomists have observed accessory spleens or spleniculi, numbering as high as several hundred. In addition, splenic tissue has been found, rather than localized as a definite organ, instead scattered throughout the gastro-intestinal tract. From the standpoint of comparative anatomy, then, the spleen, more than any organ in the human body, retains the ability to returns to a more primitive condition, operating closer to the evolutionary stage of primitive organisms than to highly developed organs in the human body.

The connection between the ability to regenerate and the potential for malignancy seems complex, but strong enough to pique our scientific curiosity. In primitive organisms, the relation is inverse: regeneration and cancer are mutually exclusive. In human organs, the relation is direct: regenerative organs are the most susceptible to cancer, with one stunning exception, the spleen, whose inverse relation between regeneration and malignancy harkons back to the earlier evolutionary time of the primitive organisms.

Isolation is the second line defensive maneuver. Organisms can erect a partition between a damaged area and the rest of the body to protect themselves from infiltration by the diseased tissue. For example, we see this in oysters. When a foreign particle becomes an irritating presence, a pearl is formed. In the human body, we can see this in tuberculosis. A fibrous wall surrounds the infected tissue and successfully separates the damaged area from normal lung tissue.

It is likely that the cancer tumor represents this kind of defensive functioning. We know that cancer tumors consist of all kinds of bodily debris. It is likely that the tumor functions as a kind of garbage pail, collecting toxic and unwanted waste into one place, cordoned off by thick membrane walls. The tumor, then, may well be a life-saving attempt by the body’s functioning. Systemic circulation, throughout the body, of the large amount of toxic material represented in the tumor would cause immediate systemic poisoning. (This, in fact, is one of the dangers of the traditional medical treatments of cancer. Even independent of the toxicity of the treatment, the intended effect of the treatment is to dissolve tumors quite rapidly, thus causing the toxic material of the tumor to spill out into the rest of the bodily tissue.

Finally, the body can resort to the protective operation of inflammation. For mammals, this is a much more common healing response than either regeneration or isolation. The overt signs are easily recognizable: they are redness, warmth and swelling. These events happen because of an influx of white blood cells rushing to the injured tissue. Inflammation is a normal response, even to cancer, in a healthy organism. Since the 1700s, scientists have been proving this by injecting themselves with cancer cells, and observing the inflammatory response (without subsequent cancer development. Dr. James Nooth, in 1777 England, Dr. Jean Louis Alibert in 1808 France, and Dr. Thomas Brittingham in the 1950s at Washington University in St. Louis are among scores of curious physicians who knowingly injected themselves with cancerous tissue in order to observe their body’s response. In each case, there was a localized inflammation, forming a wound, eventually a scab, and within a few days, the site of the incision was perfectly healed (Altman, 1986).

Laboratory research, too, proves that cancer cells cannot survive in fluid where an active inflammatory process is present. Also, cancer patients often have a childhood history where the typical childhood inflammatory diseases – measles, mumps and flus – were notably not present (Husemann, 1982).

When an inflammatory response can be mounted, the cancer goes into regression. This fact was noticed 100 years ago, when the connection between high fevers, sign of a highly activated immune system, and a regression of cancer was made. In 1891, William Coley conducted a series of experiments after observing the beneficial effects of certain infections on his cancer patients. In 1893, he injected a bacterial toxin into a young boy with inoperable, incurable cancer, and changed the course of the boy’s malignancy, curing the cancer. In total Coley treated 483 cancer patients, each showing clear clinical improvement, with 283 of his patients showing survival time ranging from 5 to 72 years longer than their medical prognoses had indicated (Issels, 1975). Today, we have extended Coley’s idea of artificially stimulating an inflammation into the experimental treatment of cancer through hyperthermia, an intensive heating of the body, an artificial simulation of what a natural inflammatory reaction would be doing were the body capable of mounting such a response.

What all of this means is that where there is a cancer condition, there is, as well, a state of biological under-activity. Each of the defensive maneuvers available has, one by one, failed. The first line of defense, the inflammatory reaction, is inadequate. Failing here, the organism regresses to the more primitive defensive maneuver of isolation and attempts to cordon off the diseased area: thus, the tumor. And, when even this fails, as a last-ditch desperate attempt, the organism resorts to a still more primitive defensive tactic. As a misguided striving towards regeneration, it produces massive proliferation – mestatasis. At this point, death calls.

Where is the psyche in all this? This is where the mind/body connection gets really interesting. The psyche has gone through the exact same processes as the body. Whatever the body does, the psyche mirrors.

The psychological research on the cancer personality shows that the cancer patient is inclined to repress feeling (LeShan, 1977). There is an initial lack of reactivity. The psyche denies that there is anything wrong. It blithely goes along, existing in a sea of unfeeling. The psychological equivalent of the inflammatory process – feeling – doesn’t occur. Feeling, like the rush of white blood cells, energizes the body and mind. Feelings tell us that our psychological monitor, our psychological immune system, is working. So, first, the feeling goes.

Then the psyche tries the biological equivalent of isolation. Research shows that the cancer personality that has been erected is a lie – a veneer, a picture of health and normality that is all face, with nothing to back it (Goldberg, 1981). The cancer personality is, we might say, promiscuously pleasant. Joyce McDougall calls this class of people “normopaths” – abnormally normal (McDougall, 1978). But behind this false mask of polite pleasantries, there is a seething cauldron. There is unconscious, unfelt aggression and rage. These psychological pathogens remain, like the tumor, cordoned off from the rest of the personality. The cancer patient has what we might call a psychological tumor of psychic debris of unwanted, repressed feelings.

Finally, though, this defense, too, fails. The contents of this psychological tumor – dissatisfaction, rage, disappointment – spill out and make their presence known. It may at first be only through disturbing dreams, or vague feelings of anxiety. And, this failed defense is then replaced by the defense which, like its biological equivalent of regeneration, is doomed, too, to failure. The person is overcome with feeling – helplessness, hopelessness, despair reign. The feelings are out of balance, exaggerated, and ultimately paralyzing. These feelings, like the proliferating cancer cells, seem to take over completely; the cancer patient feels victimized by them.

Cancer patients who reach this point in their psychic regression, like those who reach the point of metastasis in the biological regression, are the ones who are most likely to die. These are the patients who feel as though there is no exit, no options. Death would be a relief. It’s a passive suicide.

Cancer patients exist, then, in a state of under-reactivity on both the physiological and psychological levels. This state of under-responsiveness has come to be experienced by the patient as normal, rather than the exception that the patient no longer even remembers the possibility of its having ever been different. The satisfied acceptance of this pathological condition constitutes the largest threat to the continued survival of the patient. He doesn’t know he’s ill until it’s far too late.

The cure of the cancer patient, then, is to enable him to mount an inflammatory response. Various biological treatments have this effect on the body, including nutrition, detoxification, herbal agents, hyperthermia, acupuncture. For the psyche, the task is to stimulate the patient back to feeling, to help him to become emotionally alive. That’s how Spotnitz’s ideas come in here. Not only are hate and anger and aggression necessary and inevitable feelings, because they are part of our human nature, but as well, an incapacity to feel them paralyzes the entire psychic structure. Hate and anger are the first new feelings that the cancer patient will become aware of as consciousness is brought to his psyche. The carious modern analytic techniques are powerful tools to stimulate the psychological immune system into activity.

At first, parallel to the curative process of the body, pure discharge of toxic material may be necessary. While discharge is not ultimately curative, it is often the first step in relieving an already overly burdened toxic condition. The patient may complain, or cry, or scream, without understand and without integration into the ego. Eventually, however, discharge will give way to assimilation. Through the medium of words, feelings will be “digested,” and integrated systemically. A psyche which has feelings restored to its functioning will have a powerful beneficial effect, through the chemicals that the feelings release, on the body.


There are three principles which sum up the curative process for both mind and body diseases: 1) mother’s milk is best, 2) give a friendly hello to your colds and fevers, and 3) don’t be afrai to jump into the poison ivy.

1) Mother’s Milk is best:

On the biological level, mother’s milk, and its ingredients, confers immunity on the newborn, who is born without a highly developed immune capacity. A wealth of research shows that non-breast-fed babies are sicker, and that this disadvantage lasts throughout childhood (Montague, 1978). On the psychological level, just as good nourishment confers on the newborn a strong physical immune system, good emotional nourishment confers on the baby a strong psychic foundation. A baby who feels fundamentally loved is a baby who can tolerate, as well, hate – his own toward others and others; toward him. When there is a stable, consistent flow of love to the child, hate doesn’t come to have all its fearful and threatening aspects. It doesn’t feel like permanent abandonment; it doesn’t feel like “I’m going to be killed”. It’s just another feeling out of a host of many.

2) Give a friendly hello to your colds and fevers:

Colds and fevers are not diseases. They are signs of an active immune system (Incao, 1990). They’re the body’s house-cleaning. There is no better medicine than a cold or fever. Every sneeze or cough expels millions of microorganisms from the body. Every inflammatory fever reduces the chance of contracting cancer.

The psychological equivalent of colds and fever is feeling. Feeling is a sign that our psychological immune system is in good working order.

When this process of immune functioning begins to be restored for both body and mind, symptoms will occur which will cause discomfort. When biological toxins are released in the healing process of the body, it may seem as though the patient is getting sicker. Old symptoms which had been dealt with originally through suppression may now reoccur, as they work their way through the release (Jensen, 1978). The same is true on the level of psyche. As feeling is restored to the psychic apparatus, the patient will often complain that he is getting worse. He may complain of having feelings that he has never had before. I remember one group with Spotnitz where one of the patients was frightened of the experience she had had earlier in the day: she had been looking in the mirror and had an uncontrollable urge to slash her wrists. She said she had never felt this way before and it took every ounce of her control to not act out this feeling. As the group was busily feeling compassion and sorrow for this woman’s pain, Spotnitz’s only response was to congratulate her for having a new feeling.

In my own practice, one particular patient comes to mind because of her extreme state of defensiveness against all feeling when she entered treatment. She was a 50-year-old Catholic ex-nun. She had never had sexual feelings, until one day she met a man and fantasized about having sex with him throughout her workday. She was afraid of losing her job, her fantasies were so consuming. As her analysis proceeded, and more feelings were allowed into consciousness, she found herself crying a lot of the time. She interpreted this to mean that she was having a nervous breakdown. She became fairly obsessed with her fear of “going crazy,” and asked me to refer her for psychotropic drugs.

These “healing crises” are not just irritating complications. They are necessary steps in the organism’s effort towards developing an active immune system. The organism will be left in a healthier state, with increased immune functioning, after a bout with one of these crises. When we take medicine to try to soften the discomfort of immune manifestations, we interfere with body/mind’s attempt to return itself to healthy homeostasis. Antihistamines for colds and aspirin for fevers reduce the ability to mount its defensive functioning. Psychotropic drugs interfere with the psyche’s expression of its feelings, making the work of psychological cure more difficult.

3) Don’t be afraid to jump into the poison ivy:

What’s special about poison ivy is that it makes us react. It stimulates the immune system; it’s like a jump-start to the immune system. Because of this property, it is an old, folk remedy for cancer (Lenaghan, 1990). The symptoms of poison ivy, the bumps and rashes, are merely biological toxins coming to the surface of the body so that they may be released.

On the psychological level, we also have an active ingredient which is sure to make us react. More than anything, relationships stimulate our feelings, from the exquisite joy of first romance, to the disillusionment of love gone dark and angry and needing of revenge.

Research shows that people in relationships live longer and are healthier than those who are solitary and isolated.

Of course, the best poison ivy of all, for the psyche, is the analytic relationship. Psychoanalysis is the best treatment we have for bringing psychological toxins to the surface – all those old, repressed feelings that we didn’t want to have the first go-round, and which make us decidedly uncomfortable this time around, too, in our treatment. They need to come out.

After a bout of a cold or fever or poison ivy, we’re healthier than we were before. Lots of old toxins will have been released. After a bout of thinking and feeling in psychoanalysis, the psychological immune system will be in equally good shape. We might even be able to come closer to living our natural life span of 120 years.